Centre for the Study of Conflict
School of History, Philosophy and Politics,
Faculty of Humanities, University of Ulster
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1. The place of Churches in Northern Ireland Society
a. Churches remain the largest non-governmental institutions in Northern Ireland. They are present in every part of the country reflecting the historical importance of the Church as a social and cultural organiser. In Northern Ireland they remain central to society.
b. Churches are the largest organisations with voluntary membership in Northern Ireland. In comparison to England, Scotland and Wales attendance and the importance attached to it remain high.
c. Churches are important parts of the Northern Ireland economy. Much work in Churches by Church members is unpaid, clubs and societies generally have voluntary leaders and Churches employ many people. In addition Church collections raise considerable funds for a variety of other organisations particularly registered charities. (See below for ACE)
d. Churches are centres of important and lasting networks of relationships. In rural areas extended families, friendships, social activity and business contacts are all related to Church. In urban areas the first three continue to be true to some extent.
e. Churches are crucial markers of identity in Northern Ireland. They are one means by which the political complexion of an area can be gauged. They are central to the different experiences of children growing up through schools and youth activities and as refuges in times of trouble. Marriage, friendship, school and even career are often formed in the communities in which Church plays a part.
f. Churches carry many of the cultural memories of Northern Ireland through an institutional continuity which stretches back to the sixteenth century. They thus have an institutional authority which predates the people alive today. They are thus also entwined with the cultural and political history of the people.
g. In rural areas Churches remain important parts of the social order. They have an authority and respect based on a widespread acceptance of their moral leadership. In such settings the clergy are considered very important local figures. To some extent this has broken down in urban areas particularly among working class men. Nevertheless their authority is considerably greater than the institutional authority of Churches in Great Britain. No single Church can claim the attendance of the Roman Catholic Church in the Irish Republic and so ecclesiastical authority in the North is more fragmented though not necessarily less public.
h. Churches have suffered seriously under the impact of violence. In many ways the experience of violence has affected the Churches more profoundly than the Churches have affected the violence. The institutional coherence and popular authority of the central Church leaderships has declined and in a society which is marked out by the number of violent deaths the theological difficulties are serious. How does a religion based on 'Agape' account for the present spread of terror in a Church-dominated society? Violence naturally varies from place to place and the response to it is similarly variable. The result is that congregations and parishes are very different from one another even within denomination. Denomination cannot be taken as an absolute signifier for political or social position. Popular experience of 'the Churches' is therefore likely to be very different in different places.
i. Precisely because the Churches are spread so widely throughout Northern Ireland, when taken together, they reflect all of the strands of Ulster politics within their institutions. Churches as institutions have been unable to make any clear or consistent difference between a 'Christian' response to violence and politics and a 'non-Christian' one. As such politics appears to dominate the Churches more than vice versa.
j. There has been some disintegration of Church structures and authority in recent times. Protestant Churches continue to struggle with falling attendances in Belfast and the growth of small House Churches beyond any central institutional control while the Roman Catholic Church suffers from serious political trouble in West Belfast and a widespread flaunting of its authority particularly in areas such as birth control.
2. The Churches and inter-community relationships
a. The Churches are often blamed for a conflict in which the most consistently perceived dividing line is between Catholics and Protestants. Certainly they seem to be unable to convincingly rid themselves of this association. Funerals and orations at them seem to be the focus of the most public duties of the Church in this context. The Churches association with funerals and with responses which flow from violent deaths mean that they too are integrated into the whole 'system in turmoil'. At the same time, many clergy have tried to use funerals as places for appeals for an end to reciprocal violence. The importance of such occasions cannot be overlooked.
b. Protestantism is said to be more political than Catholicism. This arises from the fact that some, particularly around Ian Paisley, express their outlook in theological terms. The fear of 'Rome' is certainly not mirrored by a fear of institutional Protestantism on the Catholic side. Nevertheless, as an institution, the political profile of the Roman Catholic Church is much higher than that of any Protestant Church. In the absence of a State to which many Catholics owe their unconditional allegiance, the Church has become the main institutional organiser. The result is that any Protestant fears, whether expressed by Church-goers or atheists, appear to be confirmed from the perspective of someone looking for evidence of Church-domination in nationalist circles.
c. Churches have a vast network of associated clubs and activities. Many of these are confined to members of the parish or congregation and nearly always attendance is determined by the divide evident between Catholics and Protestants. Church activities are as divided as those of other organisations. In a context of violence and fear, the congregational and parish system seems to mirror and institutionalise the political and cultural divisions of Ulster. There appears to be only occasional congregational commitment to programmes of meeting and encounter across congregational boundaries, nor has there been any consistent encouragement for this from Church leaderships.
d. The Churches in Northern Ireland have not regarded Inter-community relationships as a matter for particular programmes of action. Churches have seldom produced proposals for new initiatives which involve congregations and parishes at a systematic level. Even ACE programmes undertaken on an inter-denominational basis tend to be limited to a small number of people. Serious discussion about the relationship of Christianity to the question of inter-community relationships have been limited to small groups and to particular congregations and parishes. Discussions on the task of the Churches in a divided society have seldom taken place except between clergy. There is very little evidence that parishes and congregations provide places for serious debate on the function of Churches in inter-community relationships. In a society in which community divisions mirror denominational divisions this is a notable omission. It may be that the Churches fear serious institutional division in the event of discussions on this subject becoming widespread. It is clear that neither clergy nor laity have sought to open up such discussions.
e. Church leaders have been associated with calls for an end to 'violence'. Nevertheless, this has not been accompanied by major changes in the pattern of Church relationships. The Churches remain identified with particular sides and there are few consistent indications that this has radically changed in the last twenty years. The result is that a whole dimension of Northern Irish cultural life acts to reflect community fears and experiences but is seldom an active forum for reflection and discussion on alternatives, except through the conversion of others. This applies also to controversial questions of social, political and economic importance. The result is that Churches have tended to concentrate in one place, people of similar understanding or experience as it affects these areas, rather than be places of meeting with differences. In this context, Churches have a tendency to become protective fortresses for threatened people rather than places of open and profound discussion.
f. The question is often asked, 'What impact do the Churches have on violence?' Our research suggests that there is no single clear answer to this question. We can also ask 'What impact does the violence have on the Churches?' Over the past twenty years, divisions within the Churches have continued. At an ecclesiastical level, contact between Churches remains tentative, particularly between Catholics and Protestants. Within official Church circles, such contact has largely been limited to clergy and Church employees and has not extended to widespread interchange between the laity on a congregational basis. There appears to be little internal unity within the Churches, as to what Churches should do in regard to inter-community relationships. The result is a highly differentiated picture, with each congregation and parish adopting different approaches.
g. In ecclesiastical terms, there is some evidence that some in the Churches have moved further apart while others have engaged in common ventures. This confirms a general picture of fragmentation within the institutions with regard to ecumenism and inter-community relationships. Our evidence shows that large numbers of Presbyterians are unwilling to have any religious co-operation with Catholics. At the same time, Catholics are regarded by many as more interested in preserving the denominational purity of schools than in seeking other ways. The dominant emphasis appears to be on institutional purity above inter-denominational engagement. In this context, inter-denominational contact between Churches is always limited in advance and is seldom entirely free of defensiveness.
h. From our research, it is clear that theological reflection by many clergy is focused on defence of clear doctrine rather than on repentance and change. In most theological thinking, there is a clear assumption that change, whether political or theological has to be undertaken by 'the others' first. 'The problem' is usually located in the doctrines, attitudes and actions of the others, whoever they may be. The corollary of this is that the speaker is always unable to act, because the other has to change first.
i. At the same time, it remains true that, in some areas, the Churches contain and support the only people seriously committed to inter-community relationships. In ghettos the opportunities for contact between people have to be organised. Churches are sometimes the only bodies undertaking this. At one and the same time, even in neighbouring parishes or congregations, the strongest opponents to any contact between Catholics and Protestants may be within Churches. Schools programmes for Mutual Understanding (E.M.U.) may be most strongly opposed and most strongly supported in Church groups.
j. Schools remain a major focus of division in Northern Ireland. Church involvement in schools means that this is a major focus of Church institutional power in Northern Ireland. Many Protestants do not recognise the fears of Catholics in regard to the State system and demand integration through the abolition of Catholic schools. Often they do not acknowledge even the Protestant-technocratic-British orientation of State schools. Most Catholics proclaim that their schools have a different ethos which must be protected. Nevertheless if the ethos is one of 'agape' it is difficult to see this in operation in the manner in which they are defended. There is no common agreement, even within denominations, as to what could or should be done about schools in Northern Ireland.
3. The Churches and "Action for Community Employment" (ACE)
a. The Churches have been given considerable influence through the expansion of the A.C.E. programme. This has had serious effects in some areas. For Churches in general the limited number of people involved means that the appearance of Church involvement in community work may be restricted to very few people. In other words, although the ACE project runs through the institutional 'Churches' it has very little real impact on the life of the congregation. This varies from place to place. Nevertheless, it is hard to see any distinctive 'Church' contribution to many projects except that Churches have widespread networks and are generally trusted by local people in areas associated with 'caring'. As a means for the Churches to be 'relevant' it can only ever be partial and temporary.
b. The Roman Catholic Church is now the largest provider of A.C.E. jobs in West Belfast. Government policy has been to restrict the funding of community groups because of fears that money was used to support paramilitary groups and their political wings, particularly Sinn Féin. One of the results is that many local people resent the Church monopoly, often represented in clerical chairmanship of every financially viable local institution. Given the difficulties of setting up projects without Church backing, many community activists find themselves in opposition to Church and State. One of the most obvious results has been that the Church has become involved in local political battles with Sinn Féin. The expansion of the Church into the economic sphere by association, is regarded by many community activists as anti-democratic given existing clerical influence over schools and youth facilities.
c. In some areas the Roman Catholic Church has been the refuge for all those opposed to the I.R.A. In many working-class areas it is the only local institutional opponent. Nevertheless, the politics of A.C.E. resources has at times resulted in local community-activists resentment against the Church authorities which may be expressed as support for Sinn Féin.
d. The Protestant Churches are not popularly identified with A.C.E. in the same manner. Where Protestant Churches do have A.C.E. schemes, they often do so together or in areas where other groups (e.g. community groups, local council, Chamber of Commerce) also have active projects. The Protestant Churches are not regarded as the sole providers of community assets. Furthermore, there is usually more than one Church institution in Protestant areas, which prevents the same sense of 'monopoly' emerging. The result is that local power battles are not focused on the institutional Churches in Protestant areas to the same extent as they are in Catholic areas. This difference may further compound Protestant views of Catholicism as political domination. Nevertheless, it remains true that the larger Protestant Churches are widely regarded as the Unionist establishment at prayer. Among clergy this would include outright opposition to loyalist paramilitarism. Withdrawal of A.C.E. funds to groups suspected of paramilitary links has been less marked and where it has happened, the Churches have not been the focus of local anger.
4. Policy implications
a. A community relations policy towards 'the Churches' has to take account of the vast real differences which exist from congregation to congregation. A blanket approach can only result in unpredictable and possibly harmful results. The central institutions cannot control these results.
b. None of the Churches in Northern Ire land has developed a clear policy on inter-community relations. This may be because of the fear of institutional division. Nevertheless, the result is that the Churches are usually reactive rather than pro-active in the area of inter-community relationships. The Churches could be encouraged to present their own proposals for the involvement of Churches in policy changes. Unless there are widely-supported and well-known Church policies on inter-community relationships, institutional relations involving the Churches are likely to be unclear, unpredictable and unsatisfactory.
c. Inter-community relations cannot be improved by a policy which assumes that the Churches in toto will act in a manner significantly different from other secular institutions. Churches are organised on a parish and congregational basis and the experience of Northern Ireland is that most tend to reflect, more than they transcend community divisions. In the past some congregations and parishes have sought to reduce community boundaries while others seek some security behind reinforced separation. In secular society, reinforcement of boundaries might be called ghettoisation. Reinforcement of community boundaries is often an expression of deep fear and anger as a result of violent experiences shared by the congregation or parish at the hands of an identified enemy. This variation within institutional Churches must be recognised before any serious policy towards 'Churches' can be formulated.
d. The Churches can be encouraged to expand inter-community relationships in their areas. Conditions on inter-community dimensions to Church-based programmes attached to financial support seem an appropriate instrument. These can build on the large numbers involved in Churches and utilise the very well-developed structures and wide acceptability of the Churches. It is of major importance that encouragement' by financial or other means does not become force and that Churches are left to 'opt in' to possibilities on offer from the government. Northern Ireland Churches historically react in a defensive manner if change is seen to be imposed on them. It is imperative that the Churches be seen to take responsibility for their own commitments and choices in the area of inter-community relations.
e. A.C.E. funding has led to very serious problems in West Belfast. The centralisation of control in the hands of the clergy, seen as agents of an institution, rather than local people has had many negative effects. A.C.E. funding policy is a very blunt instrument, and the concentration of resources in clerical hands creates serious political imbalances within local communities. The government's policy aim, that money should not fall into paramilitary hands, is translated in many areas as the political vetting of the entire community. The result is a further alienation from Church and State in many places. Much thinking is needed to find ways of redefining Church involvement in order to avoid the sense of exclusion which now embitters many community groups, perhaps by encouraging more creative partnerships at local level. This is not to say that the Church should not be involved, but the nature of that involvement might be more flexible.
We are grateful to Professor Ron McAllister, of Northeastern University, USA, who pointed out to us that there were a number of terms used in the text which are only comprehensible to a local audience. This Glossary is intended to provide some explanation for some of these terms.
P1 ,P2..P7: Northern Irish schools are divided into Primary (aged 4-11) and Secondary (aged 11-18). Primary school is divided into seven classes called Primary One, Two, Three and so on. In common speech, these are reduced to P1, P2 and P3. P1 is for four year olds, P7 for 11 year olds.
Grammar Schools: Secondary Education in Northern Ireland is selective. At the age of eleven, pupils may take a qualifying examination, known as the ‘eleven plus’. Those who pass the eleven plus, qualify for State-funded places at the provinces Grammar Schools. Those who fail the exam go to Secondary Schools.
Education and Library Boards (ELBs): Educational Administration in Northern Ireland is organised on a regional basis. There are five Education and Library Boards who control large budgets for schools, youth work, student grants and so on.
Tech: Local short form for ‘Technical College’, which provide continuing education for adults, school leavers and work training. Usually located in major centres of population.
EMU: Education for Mutual Understanding. Government-backed programme to encourage a cross-community dimension to formal education. Operates at the level of curriculum and in joint projects between schools, including contact schemes.
District Council: Northern Ireland is now divided up into 26 District Councils which have authority in a limited sphere of local services. They replaced the old County Councils, which formed the basis of Northern Ireland’s alternative name, the Six Counties.
Health Board: The provision of public health facilities is administered at local level by four regional Health Boards who allocate resources within their areas as part of the National Health Service.
DSSO: District Social Security Office. Local Office for the provision of social services and the processing of claims for social security benefits. Also known as ‘the dole’ or the ‘broo’.
Job Market: Local centre for the Government Department of Employment. Advertises vacancies and monitors unemployment locally.
ACE: Action for Community Employment. Government Scheme for the long-term unemployed. Partially funded by the European Social Fund. It has become a semi-permanent feature of the Northern Irish economy. Each scheme is locally managed, often with Church involvement.
NIVT: Northern Ireland Voluntary Trust. Independent Funding Body for Voluntary Groups engaged in the field of Social Services in Northern Ireland.
VSB: Voluntary Services Belfast. Co-ordinates volunteers in a variety of projects throughout Belfast.
Corrymeela: Christian Community based throughout Northern Ireland with a residential centre near Ballycastle. Often used by community groups as a residential resource.
BB,GB: Boys Brigade, Girls Brigade. Uniformed youth organisations based in Churches. Virtually entirely Protestant. Also exist outside Northern Ireland.
Orange Order: Protestant Organisation originating in Armagh in the late eighteenth century. Historically regarded as the most visible integrating institution for all Protestants and Unionists particularly in Northern Ireland. Regarded by many as the real power under the Unionist government. Of late it has appeared to be in decline, although membership of Flute Bands, linked to the lodges remains strong.
Gaelic Athletic Association: Also known as the GAA. Established in 1887 to promote Irish Games, especially Gaelic Football, Hurling, Gaelic Handball and Camogie. Controversial in Northern Ireland because of the stipulation that no member of British Crown Forces (i.e. RUC, UDR or Army) can play the games.
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